EU and Turkey need to make historic refugee crisis decision

EU and Turkey need to make historic refugee crisis decision

Over the last couple of years, millions of people have fled their war-torn home countries, mainly traveling to Europe. The number of these people, especially from Syria, has risen so high that host countries have finally started to question what to do about them - and Turkey is no exception here.

Since last autumn, we have seen some resolution attempts, but unfortunately these attempts have fallen quite far short of yielding solid results, as many countries have been too late to understand the core issue. 

For the European Union’s part, any promises given to Turkey to ease its EU membership process will not help solve the refugee issue. Such promises may save the day in the short-term, but they are not medium-term or long-term solutions. On the contrary, they may only lead to boosting opposition voices against Turkey and refugees in many circles. Promising the opening of new accession chapters in exchange for returning thousands of refugees to Turkey only helps create the image in people’s minds of Turkey as a “gatekeeper,” expected to seal its borders to prevent further inflows of refugees to the old continent.

For the Turkish side, negotiating over a 3 billion-euro plan (or more) to keep the Syrian refugees in Turkey or to accept more back into the country is again not helping. Rather, it reduces a huge problem to the level of bazaar bargaining.

All sides need to accept that a majority of Syrian refugees are not “guests” or just “heads to be sent back.” Most probably they want to return to their homeland - if any homeland remains.

Some 85 percent of the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey do not want to return to their homeland under current circumstances, Family and Social Policies Minister Sema Ramazanoğlu said recently. Recalling that 150,000 babies were born to Syrian families last year alone, Ramazanoğlu said “these are Turkey’s babies.”

I want to give some figures here, but I’m worried because giving numbers may create a sense of non-humanizing the issue. But in the end we have reached a point where we are witnessing the largest refugee flow since World War II.

According to U.N. data, more than 4.1 million Syrians have now fled their country. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan host many Syrian refugees, as well as Egypt and Iraq in lower numbers. Jordan has an expanding Syrian refugee population of more than 620,000 women, men and their families. In Lebanon, the refugee influx has taken on dramatic proportions. Refugees now account for one in four people living in the country.

Overall, at least 3,770 people lost their lives in 2015 trying to cross to Europe. Over a million people managed to cross into Europe, mainly fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Some measures to prevent illegal trafficking have finally been introduced, as NATO expressed its willingness to support a German, Greek and Turkish request for a maritime mission to help monitor Turkey’s Aegean Sea coasts for migrant smugglers on Feb. 11. 

But there are still questions about how effective these measures will be, as there are millions of displaced people scattered around. 

Turkish European Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır recently said Turkey was trying to reduce the pressure on illegal migration by allowing Syrians in Turkey to get work permits. A cabinet decision allowing refugees to formally work in Turkey went into force after being published in the Official Gazette on Jan. 15 (it did not specify nationality, but it was mainly intended for Syrians). 

First of all, these work permits for refugees need to be offered not only in Turkey, but also in other host countries, as well as Europe itself. These permits also need to be accompanied by solid integration policies that are agreed and developed together, rather than trying to seek ways to send refugees back somewhere else. For example, a comprehensive education plan needs to be created immediately.

Turkish society is changing in a dramatic way. I’m not sure the country’s social and economic structure can bear such a big burden by itself. Although there is no solid data on how many Syrians have been informally employed so far, reports indicate that this figure is about to reach one million. 

According to a World Bank report issued last August, the informal employment of Syrians mostly hit unqualified workers, mainly unqualified women, who are already disadvantaged. This picture will most probably deteriorate further, as a recent report by the Labor and Social Security Ministry found that no more than 3 percent of all Syrian refugees in Turkey are part of the “educated-qualified” labor force, (even though a majority of them are between the ages of 18 and 65). The resulting average wage increase is likely due to the fact that those who have experienced wage losses end up leaving the labor market, the World Bank report said. 

On the other hand, an increased demand for higher-quality formal jobs filled by Turkish workers is also expected. Some even expect Turkish workers to go back to school as they lose their lower-status jobs to Syrians. This may seem to be a positive, but what will Turkish workers who cannot go back to school do?

What’s more, how can the resentment among unemployed people be prevented, when 74 of Turkey’s 81 provinces currently host Syrian refugees?

So a historic decision needs to be made immediately to resolve the refugee crisis. And any resolution should include a comprehensive integration policy, as anything else may only alienate or even radicalize many people and countries.